I'm a total sucker for the underdog. I don't even care what the domain is-- sports, politics, games, academics, business, love, war-- if there is an odds-on favorite, I'm pretty much guaranteed to root for his opponent. As many people have noted, 2010 is shaping up to be the Year of the Underdog, beginning with the election of our first black President, followed by the New Orleans Saints' unlikely SuperBowl victory, then one of the most nail-biting, heart-wrenching, buzzer-annihilating Big Dances of NCAA basketball history and, in the entertainment world, the Academy Awards also pitched in this year by awarding Best Director/Best Picture to Katheryn Bigelow and "The Hurt Locker." Even when there wasn't an identifiable "underdog" to root for, several times this year already we have been able to indulge in that oh-how-the-mighty-have-fallen schadenfreude. (See: Tiger Woods, BP, John Edwards, Jay Leno, Goldman Sachs, Mark Sanford, etc.) Given that underdogs qua "underdogs" are always a pretty bad bet-- because, unless something extraordinary happens, they usually LOSE-- our affection for them is pretty hard to explain. Why do we love the underdog?
Sociologists Jimmy Frazier and Eldon Snyder, in a paper entitled "The Underdog Concept in Sports," tried to explain this counterintuitive phenomenon using a little bit of emotional economics. Frazier and Snyder speculate that sports fans are always looking to maximize excitement (pleasure). So, the self-interested sports fan might root for the underdog because a close game is always more enjoyable than a blowout. Or, what is more likely, the sports fan might root against the odds because the emotional "payoff" of a underdog win far outweighs the emotional payoff of a win by the favorite, and the same is true of an underdog loss vs. a loss by the favorite. That is to say, the achievement of the unexpected win is exponentially more pleasurable (and the unexpected loss is exponentially more painful), while the expected loss or expected win is emotionally neutral because it's only, well, just what was supposed to happen. It's like Pascal's wager (or maybe it's like the opposite of Pascal's wager, I'm not sure). Either way, Frazier and Snyder's account suggests that it's a matter of simple hedonistic/utilitarian calculus.
I think that's probably half of the explanation, but I am inclined to agree with Daniel Engber who argues (in his Slate article "The Underdog Effect") that some of us believe our rooting for the underdog adds an extra variable to the calculus of Sports Equity. Like monkeys and dogs (or so it is hypothesized), we might have a psychologically-hardwired aversion to inequity. We want games to be "fair," and disproportionate odds lead us to believe that the contests under consideration "unfairly" lack equity, even when that inequity is the result of something like "natural talent." According to Joseph Vendello et al (in "The Appeal of the Underdog"), we are more inclined to attribute "talent" and "intelligence" as character traits of the favorites, but we tend to think that the underdogs have more "hustle" and "heart." We want hustle and heart to matter as much as talent and intelligence, so our rooting for the underdog is a manner of passive-aggressively forcing that to be the case. That is, we underdog-lovers "justify" our rooting-against-the-odds by fiddling with the Sports Equity calculus a bit. Pace Frazier and Snyder, I think that there is a little irrational part of the underdog-lover that doesn't really believe s/he is rooting "against" the odds. S/he just thinks the odds-makers haven't taken into account all the variables (like hustle, heart and, of course, my passionate and heartfelt cheering at home in front of the TV).
Nietzsche would say that we root for the underdog out of ressentiment, because what we share with the underdog is the psychology of the weak. When the underdog wins, it's not only an actual "physical" victory, but also a moral one. This is probably why we tend to lionize underdogs, making of them posterchildren for the Good, the True, the Beautiful. This is, after all, the point of the David and Goliath story as a morality tale: it doesn't make any difference that you're a giant and I only have one measly stone and a homemade slingshot if I also have God on my side. One thing that disrupts this Nietzschean interpretation, I think, is our love of the underdog in the form of the antihero. Antiheroes are underdogs of a sort, too. They're not heroes, after all, and I think we may root for antiheroes for the same equity-desiring reasons that we root for more "heroic" underdogs. (See my previous posts "Why Do We Love the Antihero?" and "Antiheroes (Again)".) What's interesting about the antihero, I think, is that we don't root for the antihero because we hate the strong for being strong (which is what Nietzsche would suggest is going on when we root for the underdog), but we root for the antihero, perhaps, because sometimes we hate the strong for (really) being weak, for masking their weakness as strength.
Finally, and perhaps the most interestingly, it appears that our tendency too root for the underdog is more abstract than it is tied to any particular underdog. That is, Frazier and Snyden's studies showed that, unless we are beholden to some team for sentimental reasons, we tend to root for "the underdog" whomever that may be in a particular contest. And it often happens that, in the course of a single game, the abstract placeholder of "underdog" can be occupied by both sides of a single contest. (For example, when two #5 seeds in the NCAA basketball tourney are playing each other, fans tend to root for whichever team is behind in the score, which sometimes means that they change teams mid-game.) This seems to indicate that underdog support is something more like what I want to call "underdogmatism," a rigorous (even if irrational) insistence on the appearance of equity in the game combined with a dogmatic (even if irrational) belief that the participation of fans can somehow contribute to its reality.
At any rate, go dawgs!